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NEWPORT — At the end of June, Newport resident Niko Merritt and her five children were displaced from the home they had lived in for 12 years, after their landlord decided to sell. The family worked tirelessly to secure housing prior to their move-out date, but to no avail.
For the next six months, Merritt, who runs the non-profit agency Sankofa Community Connection, and her children, would bounce from hotel room to hotel room, and sometimes a friend’s farm.
There were a couple of nights when the family slept in their vehicle, because Merritt didn’t have money for a hotel. On those nights, she stayed awake, terrified to make sure her children were safe.
Then, right before Christmas and Kwanzaa, a miracle occurred. The family was approved for a new apartment, and they couldn’t have been happier. The apartment has four bedrooms, a porch and a small backyard they hope to furnish with raised planters to grow produce.
“The journey was unsettling and hard to endure. At first, I tried to keep positive, and like it was an adventure. Like, ‘oh, we’re on a staycation for a little while,’ and as it started to drag on and go further, it got harder and harder. We felt like it would not come to an end,” she said.
During this time, Merritt said she felt like a failure as a mother, because as a parent, you’re supposed to protect your children, keep them safe and provide for them.
“It was very hard to go through that and feel helpless,” she said.
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The struggle to find housing in Newport
Throughout the months they were homeless, Merritt said there were multiple times in which they had opportunities to rent homes, only for those to fall through. Merritt said during one of those times, they found a home near her son’s school, and the realtor they were working with was super supportive of the situation they were in.
“But she didn’t know the owners were showing their own people, so moments before I submitted my application, she texted me to say it was taken. It was our hope, but it just went away,” she said.
Another landlord, she said, simply ghosted them after several conversations, and several times, the family had to compete with other potential tenants who paid at the viewing more than what the listed rent was.
“We were undercut by people. We had to deal with a lot, and it opened my eyes to things that are going on that you don’t consider when people are trying to find a place to live,” she said.
Many times, Merritt said she contacted realtors who had long-term rentals listed, but they didn’t get back in touch with her. She also contacted every agency she could think of for assistance, but the only one who helped them was Housing Hotline.
“They actually helped us pay for the hotels sometimes, but we ran out of money quicker than I thought. At first, I was using my money from work, and then, that was getting hard, because hotels cost anywhere from $500 to $700 per week, so multiply that by six months,” she said.
The community also gathered around Merritt and her children, donating to a gofundme account. Merritt said she held off on using that money for as long as she could, because she wanted to use it for when her family found a home. Eventually, she had to use it for hotels and other essentials as they struggled.
They stayed in hotels in Newport, Providence, Warwick, Seekonk and Fall River.
“It was hard on everybody’s morale. My kids started to act differently, and be more frustrated. Not having stability does a lot to a person, and unless you don’t have it, you don’t realize the impact,” she said.
The scariest day
On Aug. 22, her daughter’s second birthday, Tropical Storm Henri blew through Newport. The family didn’t have a place to stay that day, so they drove to a friend’s farm in Massachusetts.
“That was the scariest day ever, because the weather was scary, and we were taking this trip, and most of the gas stations were closed, and we were running out of gas when we got to the Warwick area,” she said.
They went to four gas stations before they found one that was open, but there was an altercation outside of the facility, so they had to wait until that was taken care of before they could purchase the gas.
“I remember it was scary, because there was a point where the rain was pouring down so hard, the windshield wipers weren’t wiping it away fast enough. I lost visibility on the highway. It was wild, but we had nowhere else to go to. We ran out of hotel money, so we had to go out in that weather to get a place to stay,” she said.
When they arrived at their destination, Merritt said they made the best of it.
“We went to Walmart and got a few party hats, and celebrated on the property. So my friend has animals there and they love it there, so it ended up being beautiful, because it cleared up later that night,” she said.
It was an experience that Merritt said she’ll never forget, but she and her children made the best of it.
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Finding a home…finally
After months, the family was able to finally find a new home on Aquidneck Island.
“We were on a list, and an opportunity came up. We were actively pursuing this opportunity at the same time, as we were continuing to look for other places. The first thing that came through, we were going to take,” she said.
When she got the notification that she got the place, Merritt said she was in disbelief, and when she went to sign the lease, she said she was still in disbelief. When the apartment manager told her to come and get the key, she said she finally knew it was real.
“I cried and I cried, and the kids did, and they were screaming when we first got here, and so happy to see that we have a real place. So it’s like I didn’t want to believe it until I got a key in my hand,” she said.
A home for the holidays…a special celebration
They were home just in time to celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Merritt said she wanted to make the holidays special for her children.
“We had an upside-down black Christmas tree, decorated with Kwanzaa decorations,” she said.
Her sons asked her why their tree was upside down.
“I said, we are doing something different this year, and celebrating that we have a place,” she said. And her oldest son Jayden, who is currently away at sea in the program, Semester at Sea, requested a home cooked meal.
“So I made him pot roast, and baked mac and cheese, and greens, and everything. I made him like a Christmas meal type of thing, or a New Year’s meal, when we got here,” she said.
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All of them now have beds to sleep in, and they have a couch to sit on. Merritt couldn’t be more thankful.
“One thing people might not like about me is I have persistence and faith, but I feel like though kept me going,” she said.
Knowing that she had to do what she had to do in order to make things happen.
“If I had to work a little longer, or take on extra work so that we can survive. I did what I had to do. And faith, I knew that there would be an end to that. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I just kept saying, ‘one more week. OK, maybe next month it will happen.’ I kept seeing that something would happen, instead of giving up, and I didn’t let my circumstances effect the way I parent so much,” she said.
Keep the faith
For those who are currently struggling with homelessness, Merritt said to keep the faith.
“Be persistent. Sometimes if you call a place and they say, ‘sorry, we can’t help you,’ then I’d follow it up with a question like, ‘do you know of any places that might be able to help? Do you know how to do X, Y and Z,’ and sometimes they do know, but they don’t offer that information without asking,” she said.
Also, if you’re put on a waiting list, Merritt said to check in with the place to see where you are on the list.
“Persistence is important,” she said.
Being creative is also important in this type of situation, Merritt said.
“If you’re a houseless family, try your best to make the best of it, because there’s an emotional toll on children that we may not see, so us adults, sharing our information freely in front of children, may harm them in more ways than we realize. So when I had to make those calls for support, I had to step out of the room, or step out of that space, so the children weren’t involved in that conversation. Sometimes they put the responsibility onto themselves, and that’s a lot to put on a child,” she said.
Merritt said to make things as fun as you can for the children.
This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport housing market creates hard times for displaced renters